How Talia Baiocchi is Changing the World of Wine Writing
There was a time, not so long ago, when wine and spirits writing was mostly the province of old, white men who conducted their critical business with score cards and spit buckets. But things have changed over the last decade, and these days you can get your booze news delivered by all manner of pundits—a former tarot card reader who writes about soju and rye with the lyrical rigor of a poet; a onetime Shakespeare professor; a rapper from Detroit. Among the brightest of these diverse voices is Talia Baiocchi, editor-in-chief of the excellent online drinks magazine PUNCH. She's also the author of Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World's Best-Kept Secret, and co-author, with Leslie Pariseau, of the forthcoming Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail (March 2016).
Baiocchi first developed a fascination with wine while working as a restaurant hostess during her time at NYU; after college she spent a few months working harvest and visiting vineyards in Italy. “I was burdened with a last name with many vowels, but I wasn’t connected to my Italian heritage,” she says. “I was interested in earning my name.” Upon returning she worked at a wine shop in New York and wrote a column about restaurant wine for Eater before establishing PUNCH as a hub for brainy booze writing in 2013. Here, Baiocchi talks about la dolce vita, ageism in the wine world and the menace of the “whiskey woman.”
F&W: You started writing about wine at a time when there wasn’t a lot to compare yourself to outside of august critics like Robert Parker or Eric Asimov. How have you seen drinks writing change over the years?
TB: Wine writing in particular has come a long way in the last decade. Over the years, I think it became clear that in order to engage people about any topic, you have to tell a good story. It took time for people to come along and usurp that old-school Wine Spectator style of criticism that had been institutionalized for so long. Now there are so many new platforms for young writers. There’s a lot of noise out there too, but I think it falls away pretty fast.
F&W: PUNCH is unique in the world of drinks writing because more than service—read this, buy this, make this—it’s about finding the place where booze intersects with the larger culture. Is it a challenge to take that kind of stance in a publishing climate that seems to demand takeaway? And what kind of stories does holding this position allow you to tell?
TB: Creating really thoughtful and smart service journalism is tough—it can actually be harder than long-form writing, but there is a way to do it that is respectful of the reader. We are doing more service writing now than we did when we launched, but we do it our own terms. We did a piece recently about a region in Portugal called Colares. The story was really about tradition and development—how history has a way of erasing things, and how much we do not know about the wine world. Colares wines are hard to find in the U.S., so if we were a classic service-driven site, we wouldn’t have been able to tell that story.
F&W: Let’s talk about gender in wine and spirits writing. It can seem that when women write about liquor they’re often positioned as that sassy, hard-drinking broad, while male writers get to express an old-fashioned gentlemanly decorum. Have you encountered this?
TB: I'm very much aware of the stereotypes. We just published a story about the “whiskey woman” trope—think Mila Kunis in a Jim Beam commercial with that come hither voice. But I have to be honest and say that I kind of tune [that gendered voice] out, because it just isn’t our brand. People always ask me about gender, and whether it’s hard to be a woman coming up in a male-dominated industry. But the truth is I’ve encountered more ageism than sexism in my career. For a long time there were really no young people with a platform to talk about wine. Every now and then I still find myself in a position of working with someone who isn’t happy to have a young woman like me editing his or her work.
F&W: One of the most compelling aspects of your book Sherry is that you don’t position yourself as an expert—you bring the reader in on your journey to learn about this world. It takes a lot of courage to write from the perspective of the student, rather than the master. What does that mean to you?
TB: I’ve felt alienated by a lot of wine writing; so much of it seems like it’s there to prove the writer’s knowledge rather than to engage the reader and bring them along for the ride. I’m not interested in that omniscient view. At the same time there’s a fine line between taking the “I know everything” stance and being faux populist. It’s important to have expertise and do the research, but it’s also valuable to acknowledge what you don’t know and [work that into] the story telling. Personally, I'm not that interested in continuing to do things that I already know super well. I think taking a tone of curiosity is never a bad way to go.
F&W: Your next book, co-authored with writer Leslie Pariseau, is about the spritz. What was compelling to you about this Italian aperitivo? What surprised you during your research?
TB: The Aperol spritz started to show up on spring and summer menus over past few years and we began to see bartenders ripping off that bitter, bubbly, low-alcohol blueprint. That was the impetus. But when we started to peel back the drink’s history it became so interesting. The spritz is really a regional perspective on the aperitif—more a manner of serving wine than it is an actual cocktail. The young people of Italy today will never see economic turmoil like their parents did, so the spritz has also become not only a unique expression of Italianism, but a symbol of la dolce vita.
F&W: Do you ever get bored? What do you do to push through it and find new inspiration?
TB: I think the hardest part of my job is feeling like I'm a one-dimensional person. Running a publication, and spending so many hours a day thinking about alcohol, I don’t have time to do the things that were once major hobbies of mine. I have no clue what’s happening in music anymore, and that’s frustrating. In some ways I do the same thing every day, but then again when you're working with such a small team there is something thrown in my direction every single day that I don't really know how to do. So I have to teach myself; I learn something new every single day.